After Hours

Peter Cochrane's Blog: The one-box generation

Hard times ahead for broadcasters?

Written on JetBlue 0038 flying from JFK to Rochester NY, and dispatched via a free hotel wi-fi service.

When I was a child there was no television. Radio was strictly LW, MW and SW. My oldest children can remember black-and-white TV but there were no colour services, nor were videos, PCs, mobile phones or broadband available.

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But by contrast, my youngest can only remember having everything, including computer games.

He has always enjoyed a rapidly growing range of technologies and content delivered direct to his computer screen. Yet today he doesn't own a radio or a TV.

We now have in our midst a new generation who are becoming radio- and TV- free. They don't posses the collection of boxes dedicated to one media alone.

Instead they opt for a do-it-all solution - the PC or laptop. Such a trend poses interesting questions for the future, especially when in some countries public broadcasting is funded by a levy or licence on the basis of TV ownership.

In the UK, for example, the BBC is funded by licence fees paid by some 24 million households, plus hotels, pubs, restaurants and offices.

Payment is ensured by a tracking system linked to the TV sales process and by detector vans that patrol areas where houses fail to register.

TV detection is through the tell-tale emissions of the local oscillator, which can be easily detected by a sensitive receiver with a directional antenna.

So what actually happens? The homes of young people who don't have a TV licence receive a visit from the detector van people. When they scan the building they can't see a TV set, so they conduct a search of the premises, and that's that. The occupants then go back to watching TV over the internet - and all for free.

This is all a bit of a blunder. It threatens the generation of content and the provision of a valued service. So, what's the answer? One thing is certain is that it cannot be policed or stopped.

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Clearly a new business model is required but if recent history is anything to go by that is unlikely to happen quickly.

I'd put my money on human stupidity taking over and a PC viewer witch-hunt being declared, along with ISP controls to stop it all and preserve the sacred cow of old.

In recent years the BBC has enjoyed an estimated 350 million viewers worldwide via the web - all funded by 24 million UK households. The obvious thing to do was to support this through either subscription or advertising.

Unfortunately the BBC charter doesn't allow this and so open access was the default. A bit of a shame. All that was needed was a recognition that new models are not only possible but indeed absolutely necessary for long-term survival.

Changes in society brought about by technology always invoke challenges. The trick is to make change work for society and not against it.

In my home there are boxes, lots of boxes. But I find myself watching less and less TV, listening to more and more radio, and of course spending more time on the web.

As the youngsters are already there, it seems that the rest of the population are likely to gradually drift that way. I can only see very difficult times ahead for broadcasters.

The last big media move on this scale was caused by MP3 technology. It amply demonstrated the fundamental inability of an established industry to change its business model.

The net result was a near-death experience for the old music industry. Sadly, I see an entrenched broadcasting industry in danger of going in the same direction.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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